John Parish, the consummate sideman, has never been one to bask in the spotlight. “I really don’t have any desire to be a star or a front man. That’s not really my ambition,” said Parish by telephone in his deep, slightly nasal British boom. “I just like doing interesting music.” Polite and quietly plain, Parish describes himself as most comfortable at home with his family.
These days, Parish is the focus of his live show for the first time since singing lead in his early bands. He’s supporting his latest, largely instrumental work, the cinematic and somber “How Animals Move,” which marks only the second time Parish has released something solely under own name (the first was the score to the Belgian film “Rosie”).
On being the “main man” this time, Parish notes, “That’s something I’m still coming to terms with. I have toured a fair bit with other people, where they’ve been the main focus, and I’ve just been happy to play guitar or drums or whatever.”
In recent years, he has worked as an integral bandmate and producer to notable artists such as Sparklehorse, The Eels and Tracy Chapman, but most people recognize Parish from his indispensable work with the vocal and emotive powerhouse PJ Harvey. Parish was in the PJ Harvey band for several years and played either guitar, drums or organ on every song of 1995’s brilliant “To Bring You My Love.” He has joined Harvey on other works and also collaborated with her on “Dance Hall at Louse Point.” Harvey even sings on the last track of “How Animals Move,” belting out the bawdy, quaking “Airplane Blues.”
Parish’s eight bandmates on this tour include Adrian Utley, Clare Mactaggart and James Thomas Barr from Portishead. Mactaggart performs a stunning violin solo in “Absolute Beauty Is an Absolute Curse,” which incorporates ambient noise from a baby monitor into the mix as accompaniment.
Parish observed that the album translates effectively to his live show regardless of the crowded stage and inability to include studio tinkering. “The show is very atmospheric. Having a band that size, you can make very dynamic music. The pieces range from solo pieces to full-on bents,” Parish said. “(There are) nine people playing, so it can be logistically quite difficult playing with that many people, but musically it’s great.”
Although Parish and the band never break out into full-out “blues jams,” as he jokingly put it, there is always an outlet for musical spontaneity. “We don’t jam as such. Within the framework of the pieces there’s definitely room for different sounds. It does sound different from night to night,” Parish added, “depending on whether it feels quite rocky or whether it feels quite subdued. It depends on what mood we’re in.”
As for his sideman role, Parish asserted, “I love doing music, and I don’t mind if I’m the main man in a project or if I’m helping somebody else. It’s all interesting to me. I’d rather it was that way than if it was just me doing my own thing.”
Parish has rough plans to team up again with his long-time musical partner and friend PJ Harvey in the near future. “We haven’t set any dates, but we’re very close and we often talk about doing something else together.”
John Parish will perform with Howe Gelb and Sue Gardner at 6: p.m. Saturday at First Avenue (612) 332-1775, 21+, $12/$15.
Brianna Riplinger comments at [email protected]